A new precedent? Architect sentenced to jail for role in fire that killed a firefighter

I’ll admit my own bias in reporting on this story – when I first heard about this situation, I was very angry. The short version of the story is this: a German architect (not licensed anywhere in the US) purchased a property in the Hollywood Hills and began constructing a mansion, violating numerous codes and standards of professional practice along the way. A fire later breaks out in an illegal fireplace leading to the death of one firefighter. Sorry Herr Becker, du bist schlecht!

Numerous sources are reporting on the sentencing of German architect Gerhard Becker’s criminal conviction and subsequent sentencing for his role in a fire that resulted in the death of a firefighter. Civil cases are brought against architects all the time (see this article that gives some practical tips for design professionals in California), but criminal charges are extremely rare.

Gizmodo’s Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan has more:

The case dates back to 2011, when a fire broke out in the Hollywood Hills home of a German architect named Gerhard Becker, who designed the building himself. The fire began in one of four fireplaces that had been manufactured for outdoor use but hidden within the houses itself; this means they were in clear violation of local building codes.

The flames then melted a water pipe, which leaked thousands of gallons of water into a ceiling above the heads of the firefighters battling the fire. When the ceiling collapsed, it crushed 61-year-old Glenn Allen, who died the next day of his injuries.

What were some of the violations? According to LA Weekly, this is what the firefighters reported:

Inside, the firefighters punched a hole in the wall just above a recessed, 15-foot fireplace. They discovered an unusually large void behind it. The walls did not have the typical fire stops — two-by-fours or sections of plywood that would slow the progress of flame. Over the radio, Watters reported that the fire was “running between the walls.”

Shortly after the fire, the house was declared a crime scene, though Becker was not formally charged until a year later. As the investigation advanced, more details revealed that Becker routinely ignored and tried to circumvent codes and standards. In fact, the clashes began when local building inspector Brad Bescos caught Becker pouring concrete pilings without a permit and without the requisite deputy inspector on site.

“He was resistant to my correction notices,” Bescos would later testify. “He felt he didn’t need our department there because when he had built before, he was in charge, and he made all the decisions.”

When presented with obstacles from the building department, Becker would do anything and everything to avoid compliance, including going over Bescos’ head, offering dodgy interpretations of building codes (although to be fair, flawed building code interpretations are typical with many architects), and sometimes making changes after inspectors left:

Sometimes Becker would comply initially — only to change things back after the inspection. He removed the mandatory outdoor sprinklers because he did not like the look. He took out a railing that he thought was unnecessary, and removed the pool alarm. He also built a full kitchen in the maid’s quarters, when he was only allowed to build a sink.

The Fireplace

The cause of the fire was ruled by investigators to be caused by one of four fireplaces. The one in question was an outdoor firepit that was custom-fabricated by a company in Colorado. The manufacturer clearly stated that this unit could only be used outside and was not appropriate or safe for indoor usage. Becker’s response: “I just don’t see the difference. I[t] is a pit with a pipe.”

Here are just some of the defects forensic experts identified at Becker’s home:

  • Inadequate clearance above the fireplace (18-inches, versus the required 8-feet)
  • Inadequate ventilation for the fireplace
  • Adjacent materials were made of combustible materials and were therefore not appropriate for the application
  • Missing firestops in the walls as required by code
  • Intentionally disabled pool alarm
  • Required exterior fire sprinklers removed
  • Removed required railing
  • “Hidden void space” in the ceiling
  • The other three fireplaces were also constructed improperly (nevermind the fact that building inspectors never knew about any of the fireplaces because they were installed after inspection…)

The Conviction

Without getting too deep into all the legal issues (I’ll leave that to the lawyers), this case has definitely served as a wake-up call to my colleagues that work on the legal and insurance coverage side of the AEC industry.

One of the primary defense tactics that Becker’s counsel used was something called the Firefighters’ Rule. The theory behind this concept is that firefighters receive extraordinary benefits packages as part of their compensation, specifically to account for the increased risk that they face on the job. The nature of their work is dangerous – there aren’t any surprises there. Additionally, there were certainly other factors that led to the firefighter’s death that were not Becker’s responsibility.

What ultimately led to the criminal conviction was the fact that Becker, a celebrated architect and builder in Europe, should have known better, and intentionally circumvented building codes pertaining to life-safety. In the presiding judge’s words, Becker “acted recklessly and with gross negligence.”

The Precedent?

From the time that criminal charges were first filed against Becker, this case has been watched by the industry with much trepidation. Whether or not this leads to a new legal precedent is not clear. Also, it is worth repeating – Becker was not licensed in California, and because he was acting as an owner/contractor, he would not be held to the same standards of professional practice.

Regardless of the legal precedent, hopefully this will shine light onto an inconvenient truth that exists in the built environment. Just because the house costs seven figures and is built by a renowned architect, doesn’t mean that it is somehow better in terms of quality.

Without independent third-party verification of quality, you really don’t know what you’re getting.


Resources:

Image courtesy Bob Jagendorf

6 thoughts on “A new precedent? Architect sentenced to jail for role in fire that killed a firefighter

  1. Brian, it is unfortunate the latest article on this matter repeats the improper identification of Becker as “Architect”. He is not – as you stated – an Architect in California, nor elsewhere in the US. Articles about him should not, therefore, refer to him as one, or suggest that he acted in that professional capacity in this catastrophic endeavor. The continued assertion that Becker’s case has anything to do with Architects – or that criminal charges were brought against an Architect are simply inaccurate. I have even recently seen an article suggesting that because of this decision Architects in general will become a more frequent target of criminal charges.

    Yes, Becker was trained and credentialed as an Architect in Germany. That is as far as it goes. He designed and supervised the work at his house as a private owner/builder (which, in California, anyone can do). Although he engaged contractors to do some work pursuant to permits (and again, as you noted, has numerous conflicts with inspectors), the illegal fireplaces were installed after the permitted work had concluded. Therefore, city inspectors had no knowledge of the fireplace work. This was not ‘accidental’.

    Becker, as someone with a background in design and construction, is legally presumed to have superior knowledge of applicable law (as compared with the average lay property owner). He understood what the codes required – and what they did not. He intentionally concealed from the city what he knew was illegal work, and supervised the work personally. Ultimately, his grossly negligent conduct resulted in the death of a first responder.

    This same behavior occurs with great regularity because homeowners do not fully understand why our code/permit/inspection system exists in the first place – and feel free to ignore requirements for compliance. Licensed contractors often do work without permits as well. Additionally, we have a significant problem in California (and elsewhere) with unlicensed individuals who perform work without permits – and without any appropriate training or expertise. Unfortunately, in most instances, even when this behavior is uncovered, the penalties meted out by the contractor’s board are not significant enough to act as an effective deterrent. Rarely is an owner/builder prosecuted – more often the transgressor is just asked by the local Building Official to pull a permit and get inspections going forward (so there is only the lightest of ‘penalties’ involved).

    The sentence Becker just received follows at least a bit in the same mold. Becker was not tried – he plead guilty. Most likely this was because he understood that if he was tried by a jury the prosecutor would have little trouble demonstrating his complete disregard for the codes and permit process – and that the hazard he created was both predictable and foreseeable. Had he gone to trial it is entirely possible he would have received a harsher sentence. In my opinion, the penalty he received does not reflect that his crime resulted in a death.

    As it now stands, he will serve a short time in jail and return to Germany, where he will probably not be permanently stained by his behavior in California.

    The family of the slain firefighter, on the other hand, will suffer his loss for their lifetimes. Now that Becker has plead guilty, I would not be surprised if that family now files a separate civil wrongful death suit. If they do I wish them all success (if it could be termed such).

    A separate unfortunate result of Becker’s criminal behavior is that numerous articles have been appearing since 2011 (and continue to appear) that tarnish all Architects by association – simply because Becker is incorrectly referred to as one.

    1. Thank you for your insight, Howard. I agree with your sentiment.

      There are two logical possibilities:

      1. Becker, an accomplished architect, and therefore one who is expected to adhere to an established standard of care, intentionally or willfully violated those standards of care.

      2. Becker, despite being an accomplished architect, was incompetent or for whatever reason, incapable of understanding basic life-safety considerations and the direct communications of a material supplier.

      As with the MGM fire in Las Vegas, (followed closely by the Hilton fire), there are lessons to be learned here that every architect, engineer and contractor should be aware of.

      What this case really speaks to me about is the issue of arrogance. I am sure that both you and I have been involved on cases where an architect’s arrogance trumped common sense and/or code. Hopefully this case will serve as a reminder of the cost of such extreme arrogance and narcissism.

  2. http://www.cab.ca.gov/pdf/publications/architects_practice_act_2011.pdf

    Please refer to the California Architect’s Practice act in the Link above . This individual is not an architect under the laws of the State of California. This is an “unlicensed individual” and this case cannot form any sort of precedence for jailing “real” architects.

    Most “real” architects have undergone rigorous U.S. University training, have passed the Architect’s Registration exam, and are well versed in the codes and would never have occupied a house full of code violations.

    Please get your terminology straight before publishing articles that unfairly target the mis-deeds of ordinary “non-architect” citizens or in this case of non-architect “resident-aliens”.

    Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Jaya. I am aware of what terminology I used, but I appreciate your admonishment, as it seems to come from a very passionate and heartfelt place.

      As I stated in my article, I’ll leave the actual legal commentary to people that, like architects, are licensed to practice that profession having been trained to do so and passed certain exams and adhere to a certain standard of professional conduct.

      Regarding the issue of precedence, it wasn’t me who first raised that concern. Actually, I learned about this case from an insurance carrier that often provides professional liability coverage to design professionals. Attorneys that also regularly represent design professionals have raised similar alarms.

      Are you an architect yourself? The only “Jaya Cluny” that I am able to find online is listed as working for a PR firm. I personally am not an architect, although I have worked with and for numerous architects. In fact, I worked for nearly 11 years at a firm that specialized in offering expert witness testimony on architectural standard of care. We were even tasked with providing analysis of issues such as “willful misconduct,” and “gross negligence” on more than a few cases involving architects.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  3. Fran Offenhauser August 22, 2014 — 6:33 pm

    I am a licensed architect in California. This case has nothing to do with licensed architects and our liability. I also have had buildings inspected by this City building inspector, and have a high regard for him.

    The German homeowner — new to Los Angeles– was only able to obtain a building permit at all because his structural engineer signed and stamped the drawings. Structural engineers are not knowledgeable about fire safety issues, and there is a flaw in the permit process that this case has uncovered.

    Los Angeles also allows an “owner/builder” like this German man to construct a home in lieu of a General Contractor. The Owner/Builder has to sign a long/long form at the Building department with each permit obtained (a house like this requires 8 or 10) agreeing to use licensed subcontractors; to employ no uninsured workmen; and to accept liability for losses incurred due to latent defects in the construction!

    Thus this homeowner purposefully skipped 2 processes which on a regular basis help to ensure public safety. These processes help architects do what we do well, in collaboration with an engineering, inspection, and construction team. This man purposefully disregarded our system through hubris.

    The court reports show clear intent in his disregard for life safety, and total ignorance of the complexity of gas appliances/fireplaces.

    I would have put him in jail for life.

    The house was quickly rebuilt, and rumor has it he pulled out the fire sprinklers yet again.

    1. Fran,

      First of all, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to add your perspective. If you notice in the comment above yours, I stated that while Herr Becker is not a licensed architect in the state of California, he was a licensed architect in Germany. There is a concept in law known as willful negligence. I’m not an attorney, but have been directed by attorneys to evaluate willful negligence related to both architectural errors/omissions and construction defects. Even though the owner/builder was not licensed here, he absolutely should have known better.

      Again, it was not I who advanced the idea that this could set a precedent. A prominent law firm whose California practice specializes in representing architects and engineers promoted that notion in a newsletter that they sent out to their architectural clients. You’d have to ask them why they decided to characterize this case in that regard.

      You mention that the owner/builder “was only able to obtain a building permit at all because his structural engineer signed and stamped the drawings.” Perhaps the reason the law firm brought up the issue of precedent has nothing to do with architects, and instead was referring to the liability of the structural engineer.

      Either way, we are both on the same page that the actions of this man cannot be justified and place the life and safety of others in jeopardy.

      Thanks again for stopping by.

Comments are closed.

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